Thursday, August 27, 2015

Directions to the Red Creek Fir

The world's largest remaining Douglas fir is known as the Red Creek Fir, and it's enormous: 73.8 metres tall (242 feet), and 13.3 metres around (nearly 44 feet in circumference). Not many people have seen it, however, and this post is meant as an encouragement to get you out there.

The tree's location is no secret, since the Ancient Forest Alliance has had directions to the Red Creek Fir on their website for a long time. Most of the route follows logging roads, which of course are varyingly bumpy, dusty, and travelled by huge trucks uninterested in your possible right of way, but that's predictable. The trouble is, though, that the AFA's directions are sketchy at some key points, with phrases like "Continue a short ways past the bridge" and "down hill for quite a ways." Their page links to photos of each junction, and I found those essential the first time I went out there (in 2010), but there are two problems. First, you'll have no cell coverage in the Renfrew area, so you'd have to print off the photos in advance, and second, there have been significant changes in road conditions and undergrowth since the AFA's photos were taken.

When Junior and I drove out there yesterday, as a result, I kept an eye on distances and times. To be honest, I was doing this only for future reference, but it's clear that there aren't many people driving out that way. Spiders had nearly closed the road with cobwebs, mushrooms were growing in the middle of the road, no tire tracks near the damp areas: the road's still readily passable, and in the summer you don't need 4WD so much as a short wheelbase, but I think it's a very rare trip even for your more dedicated treehuggers, like me. That's a real shame, because the Red Creek Fir is truly a remarkable tree, and more of us should see it as a destination. (Spend some money in Port Renfrew, too, if you're going out there!)

Without further ado, then, here are what I'd call clearer written directions to the Red Creek Fir, if you're coming from Victoria. Steps 1-5, plus 7, are taken almost verbatim from the Ancient Forest Alliance site, with links to their pictures (thanks, AFA! Please don't mind...), but the rest of the steps are amended, with all distances being my references:

  1. Drive to Port Renfrew along the West Coast Hwy #14.
  2. Immediately upon reaching Port Renfrew turn RIGHT downhill onto Deering Road.
  3. Cross the long bridge over the San Juan River and stay to the right on Deering until you cross a second single lane bridge and come to a “T” in the road.
  4. Turn RIGHT at the T and start heading towards Lake Cowichan on the Pacific Marine Circle Route.
  5. Travel along the Pacific Marine Circle Route for approximately 12 km. where you will hit a major fork in the road. Turn RIGHT at the fork. You will now be heading onto a gravel road.
  6. Watching for signs put up to guide you to the tree, keep to the RIGHT on this road for 4.4 km, until you cross a bridge over the San Juan River at the San Juan River Recreation Site. (The San Juan Spruce, in the middle of this site, is Canada's largest Sitka spruce, so be sure to stop there.)
  7. Approximately 2.2 km past the bridge, turn RIGHT onto Bear Main.
  8. After roughly 3.6 km on Bear Main, bear RIGHT onto Mosquito Main. (Depending on road conditions, Mosquito may be better maintained than Bear, so you may think you're still on Bear unless you notice a sign -- which may or may not be present anyway.)
  9. Keep your eye out for a small road to the RIGHT about 800 metres down Mosquito. This is the Red Creek Main, but there likely isn't a sign. (When we were there, a handmade sign with an arrow was propped against a rock on the ground, but I wouldn't rely on that. Also, the AFA photo is seriously misleading, as the road is in nowhere NEAR that condition now.)
  10. Continue down this road about 3.2 km to an intersection that's somewhere between a T and a Y: turn RIGHT. (This section of road is seriously bumpy, with significant potholes and outcroppings: we took 19 minutes to drive this 3.2 km stretch, or 10 km/h.)
  11. The parking pullout is about 1.1 km down this flat stretch. The entrance to the trail is about 20 metres further down the road past the pullout, but it's easy to miss. (If you drive past it, as we did, you could find yourself going for about another 2 km down an increasingly narrow road with increasingly tall brush in the middle of the road. Definitely best to avoid this.)

San Juan Spruce, in 2010
Most writers, incidentally, say that you need four-wheel drive to get to this tree. You'd definitely be better off with four-wheel drive, especially if there's been rain at any point in the last couple of weeks, but this was my second trip with two-wheel drive, the first time in a Mazda MPV and this time in a Nissan Cube. You'll have to drive very slowly and carefully on some stretches, picking your way around hazards, and for God's sake don't put yourself at risk of bashing your oil pan like this guy or going over the edge, but when the weather has been dry for some time (not all that common, in that area), you could manage it in a range of vehicles.

Timing for us, in a 2WD Nissan Cube with excellent intentions but precious little ground clearance:

  • Step 6: 4.4 km, 8 minutes
  • Step 7: 2.2 km, 7 minutes
  • Step 8: 3.6 km, 9 minutes
  • Step 9: 0.8 km, 2 minutes
  • Step 10: 3.2 km, 19 minutes
  • Step 11: 1.1 km, 7 minutes
The Ancient Forest Alliance posted a YouTube video about this tree in June 2011, if you're still on the fence about whether to visit (which you totally shouldn't be!):

Tuesday, August 25, 2015

Ken Kesey, Sometimes a Great Notion

It's a measure of how much things have changed, here on the West Coast of North America, that the author of the 1960's classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Ken Kesey, could follow up his countercultural epic with a novel about a family logging company on the Oregon coast.

And not just a family logging company, either, but a multigenerational, frontier-busting, hands-on logging family, and not just a novel, either, but a novel that almost deserves the glossary provided at the back of small-press volumes of logging fiction and logging poetry (and also unforgettable romance novels about logging).

In capsule form, the plot follows the Stamper family's efforts, in their non-union company, to get enough timber to the mill contracting them during a strike that has kept the union saws idle. The complication is that the elder Stamper has been injured, leaving his son to run things on his own, and then his son from a second marriage flees grad school (English literature!) in the Northeast arrives with complicated desires of revenge and belonging. Will they get the logs to the mill? Will the family survive? Will the manly remain manly?

The thing is, though, that unlike virtually every other work of logging fiction, Sometimes a Great Notion isn't the kind of novel that would have been appreciated by loggers working in the times generally depicted in these kinds of works: the 1930s through, at the very latest, the early 1960s. Kesey uses all the Beat-type tools here, especially proto-postmodernist narrative instability and loose baggy monster sentence structure, such that readers regularly encounter 200-word sentences that contain the interior monologues of two or three characters.

It's not impenetrable, and the more time you spend with it, the more you get used to the stylistic eccentricities, but me, I can't help reading these kinds of works with my father and grandfather in mind, and I just can't see them reading Sometimes a Great Notion without derision, even if the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and its readers regard it as the definitive novel of the Pacific Northwest.

Am I underestimating them? Kesey was remarkable, after all, fitting comfortably as he did into a Stanford writing program taught by Wallace Stegner that featured Kesey, Wendell Berry, Larry McMurtry, and others, and I don't disagree with Kesey's own assessment in the Paris Review of Sometimes a Great Notion: "It's my best work, and I'll never write anything that good again." But at bottom, it's not that the book is too smart for them, so much as divorced from their standard reading material.

And also, I really need to watch the Paul Newman movie made from this novel:

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Tony Horwitz, Blue Latitudes

Does the world need more Bill Bryson? Yes, and even Robert Redford thinks so.

Does the world need more Bill Brysons, though? A trickier question, even if an awfully large number of travel writers demonstrate their faith via cover versions, but the truth of the matter is that the Bryson playbook is awfully effective. More than that, a good enough writer can reveal that the Bryson playbook is a genre, adaptable in the hands of anyone who picks it up -- assuming the possession of talent, enthusiasm, and friends who drink startling amounts of alcohol.

And so I'll delay no longer, and say that Bryson be damned, Tony Horwitz's book Blue Latitudes: Boldly Going Where Captain Cook Has Gone Before is an excellent read. His attention to detail is genuinely impressive, offering considerable lessons in the life and travels of Cook, and even contributing to Cook scholarship through persisting as long as he can to seek DNA tests on an arrow purportedly made from one of Cook's leg bones. Horwitz's friend and regular travelling companion Roger, too, drinks enough and admires crumpet* consistently enough to qualify as a force of nature himself, in a role perhaps custom-made for a post-Bryson Nick Nolte.

But seriously: Horwitz does a great job of illuminating the complexity of Cook, a man who recognized and regretted what colonization was going to do to the peoples he was meeting, but kept right on mapping the coastlines and enforcing discipline on his ships. He meets all sorts of interesting folk on his journeys, Horwitz does, and though it's a little odd that the most fully drawn characters are the book's comparatively few Brits or ex-Brits, it's also appropriate for the full Captain Cook experience.

Good stuff -- even if it took me much, much longer to get through than I expected.

* "Crumpet" here doesn't mean crumpet. But you already knew that.

Saturday, August 15, 2015

Sandford, The Weekender Effect

Is Whistler Hell?

One gets stoked for pow, I get it, cray cray for when it pukes down, but Robert Sandford's little RMB book The Weekender Effect: Hyperdevelopment in Mountain Towns puts clothes around the anxiety and depression I feel when I'm enjoying myself there, even when I'm just considering another visit there.

The term that provokes much of the book's ire, though a term I hadn't come across before, was "amenity migration," by which is meant the movement of people (often the wealthy) in pursuit of the good, the cool, the beautiful, the tasty. This academic, bureaucratic term is meant to reflect a comparatively bloodless process, but that's not how Sandford experiences it:
We did not experience "amenity migration" in the mountain town I live in. What we experienced was outright dispossession. Locals, like the First Nations before us, have been made refugees in their own land. We are hardly alone in this. What is happening here is an infection that is sickening the entire mountain West. (p.87)
So, there's a lot to unpack in this book.

To be clear: the "locals" that Sandford supports are indirectly and, though less often, directly responsible for the dispossession of First Nations peoples and individuals with which he seeks to identify settler locals. I've plucked half a paragraph out of a 130-page book here, and elsewhere Sandford talks sensibly about alliances and First Nations rights, but I find the attitude in this paragraph just unacceptable. (He's much better on the same topic earlier in the book, pages 28-29.)

And the metaphor of disease is complicated when we're talking about nature and environments. Bodies go through youth and age, sickness and health, eventually dying, so disease is a crucial and foundational aspect of how a body lives. Even if we were to accept the metaphor, how is it possible to avoid the conclusion that "original" or "old-time" mountain towns were themselves early symptoms of this disease, or at least that they represented a disease that knocked down the mountain West's immune system such that this more virulent disease could take hold?

However, and however, and however. Mountain towns, and those growing non-mountain rural towns, have changed significantly over the last decades, often in just the ways that Sandford describes and attacks. I want to join the battle, and if I lived in his town, I'd be on board with almost all of the activist and communitarian initiatives that he describes.

It's just that, well, Whistler is kind of like Hell, looked at from certain angles, even from inside the determinedly resistant cocoon of the Squamish-Lil'Wat Cultural Centre. Is Canmore any better, or Valemount, just because it hasn't reached peak exploitation (pardon the pun)? Don't people identify strongly with all these towns who are cliquey, outsider-obsessed, me-first, "this land is my land, not your land" arrivistes, even if they're claiming special status from their experiences rather than their material wealth or power?

Sure, I'm jealous in all kinds of ways of these people, and I'm one of them. I've wistfully considered moving to Tahsis (I'm not moving to Tahsis) just so that I could feel on the edge of the world, a more settler sentiment there couldn't possibly be. I'm proud of my heritage in BC, with multiple descendants arriving here before 1900, though painfully aware that this means they were settlers in the truest sense of the word, and therefore directly responsible for colonial dispossession.

The Weekender Effect is a great read, seriously, and I think that Bob Sandford proposes all sorts of solutions and initiatives that could help a mountain town, or really any rapidly changing settler town, to evolve in positive directions. I just couldn't help reading it without a pretty large apparatus of doubt reaching over my shoulder and pencilling notes in the margins. If I trusted that Sandford had the same Jiminy Cricket, and I'm pretty sure he does, and if I trusted that all his readers had the same, which I doubt, then I'd recommend this book highly.